During World War II battles were waged as much in the air as they were on the ground. It was not uncommon for fighter pilots to be faced against forces that were five or six times their own. One skilled pilot could take on half a dozen inexperienced pilots and come out victorious. However, those odds were just child’s play to the ones that James Howard faced on January 11, 1944.
James Howell Howard was born in 1913 in Canton, China. His parents were American and his father was an ophthalmologist teaching eye surgery in China. He was 14 when his family returned to the United States and Howard went to school with the intention of going into medicine like his father. It was just before his graduation with his bachelor of Arts degree from Pomona College that he found a different interest. Becoming a Naval Aviator sounded like a much better plan to Howard than six years of medical school and internship.
So, he entered the U.S. Navy as a naval aviation cadet. In January 1938, he began his flight training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola. Just one year later he earned the wings that would one day turn him into a national hero.
In 1939, he was assigned on the aircraft carrier the USS Enterprise as a Navy pilot. The carrier was based a Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and he stayed on the until June 1941 when he left the Navy in order to join the American Volunteer Group (AVG). The AVG were also known as the famous Flying Tigers in Burma. During his time with the Flying Tigers he flew 56 missions and was credited with shooting down at least six Japanese airplanes.
He stayed with the Flying Tigers until they disbanded on July 4, 1942 after which Howard returned to the United States. Upon his return, he was commissioned as a captain into the United States Army Air Forces. He was promoted to the rank of Major in 1943 and he was then given the command of the 356th Fighter Squadron in the 354th Fighter Group which was based in the United Kingdom.
In 1943, bomber crews were still facing dire threats from the Luftwaffe as they moved deeper into Germany on bombing raids. Being on a bombing crew was so dangerous that it was statistically impossible for a crew to complete a 25-mission tour in Europe. The Allies needed to do something to help get their bombers to their targets and get them back home. The solution was the P-51 Mustang. The new plane had a more efficient engine, a larger fuel capacity and a larger drop tank. The new plane was able to rendezvous with bomber formations as they flew over Germany and give them the long-range support they needed to fend off German planes and make it home.
Howard was one of the first pilots to take the plane into action and on a cold day in 1944 he showed just what the little plane could do to protect a formation of Flying Fortresses as they tried to make it home from a bombing run. The leader of the bombing run would later say of Howard “they can’t give that boy a big enough award,” and the United States military agreed when they gave him the nation’s highest honor.